Israel has begun destroying Palestinian buildings, including hundreds of homes, to expand a military zone it controls along the Gaza-Egypt border. Israel wants to enhance security in the zone, where five of its soldiers were killed in a bombing on Wednesday. Israel says militants use the buildings to launch attacks and smuggle arms.

The Israeli operation was approved at a high-level meeting attended by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, and top military officials.

The decision is a response to the killing of five soldiers whose armored vehicle was destroyed in an explosion as they were patrolling the route.

Many of the Israeli army operations in the area involve finding and destroying a network of tunnels used to smuggle weapons and explosives from Egypt into Gaza.

Palestinian militants often use nearby buildings as cover to launch attacks against the Israeli forces, and as the ending points of the smuggling tunnels.

Left-wing Israeli lawmaker Yossi Sarid appealed to the government not to go ahead with the plan, saying the demolition of Palestinian buildings along the route would constitute, in his words, a war crime.

He added that all Israeli forces should be withdrawn from Gaza in order to prevent more soldiers from being killed.

?Everybody knows by now that sooner or later we will withdraw from Gaza and the only question is when we are going to withdraw - after 20 casualties, 200 casualties, 1000 casualties," Mr. Sarid said.

The head of the Israeli Army, General Moshe Ya'alon, disagrees.

He says Israeli troops must remain in some parts of Gaza to fight against what he called Palestinian terrorist groups, which he says are being supported both locally and from abroad.

?Unfortunately, we are witnessing those devastating attacks, encouraged by Palestinian Authority elements, by elements in Teheran, in Damascus, and in Lebanon,? General Ya'alon said. ?And we have to deal with all these elements in order to eliminate the terror capabilities in our region.?

Israel's deputy premier, Ehud Olmert, who supports withdrawing troops and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, also backs the current military operations in the territory.

He says raids into Gaza will be necessary even after Israel implements its plan to disengage from the territory and parts of the West Bank.

?We said from the outset that we will have to continue to fight. And when you fight, occasionally you may also have to bear these terrible events that will cause the deaths of our best kids,? Mr. Olmert said. ?It may happen in the future and I think it is entirely independent of the need for disengagement, which will ultimately take place.?

Fighting in Gaza since Tuesday has so far claimed at least 28 Palestinians and 11 Israeli soldiers.

Israeli public support for Mr. Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza has strengthened following the latest violence.

A poll published on Friday in Israel's Yidiot Aharonot newspaper indicated that support had climbed to 71 percent, up from 62 percent before Palestinian militants killed the 11 soldiers this week.